You’ve got to be Jo(h)king: History, the Left and Queensland

joh-newman

(This is a guest post from a friend of The Word From Struggle Street Jon)

It was the 40th anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising recently. On the 17th of November 1973, tanks rolled onto campus, and in a bloody orgy of violence unwittingly sealed the demise of the regime of the Colonels. The Polytechnic uprising holds a vital place in Greek radical mythology – hell, there’s a public holiday for it – and it is a constant reference point by the media and the generation of ex-protestors – who now hold power in Greece and have set themselves up as the arbiters of radical memory – whenever another spate of political engagement emerges.

One ex-protestor, Mimis Androulakis, a student leader during the dictatorship period, “has argued that the Polytechnic Generation acts like a group of ‘vampires.’ In his view, through its deification, the Polytechnic Generation absorbs younger generations in its own past, rather than allowing them to develop their own genuine rebellions.”[1]

I want to briefly explore herein whether something similar can be seen to be occurring in Queensland. With the Newman conservative government rising to power, and a movement emerging to counter it which makes explicit and constant references to its ‘glory days’ during the rule of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, I want to ask whether a similarly parasitic relationship with the past is emerging, and point to a few ways it might be avoided. In the end, a successful movement needs to engage in a productive dialogue with the past, and with the currently global context of austerity, in order to be successful.

Firstly, lets set the scene. At a recent evening protest outside of Parliament, organized by the Queensland Council of Unions and attended by a diversity of activists from movements this government is attacking, references to the Joh period ran thick and fast. Placards with Joh’s and Newman’s head reading ‘you’ve got to be Joh-King’ or ‘here we Joh again’ are just a few examples of (albeit, mildly humorous) puns that captured what the movement leaders are thinking. The MC on the night, made this even more explicit, making clear that “those of us who were around during the reign of Bjelke-Peterson know all to well about the policies being handed down by the current government.” Even more problematically, the banner for a newly founded Queensland Civil Liberties Campaign (a possibly unconscious reference to the 1967-8 and 1977-9 Civil Liberties Coordinating Committee) reads: “we beat them before, we’ll beat them again”.

Firstly, and this is a problem of historical memory as much as anything else, the movement DIDN’T beat Joh. There were some memorable and highly public struggles, and the movement fought the government tooth and nail, but in the end the grotesquely high levels of corruption in public life simply unraveled during the Fitzgerald Inquiry. The now-laughable ‘Joh for PM’ campaign, more than anything else, ensured that the Premier’s attentions where elsewhere when it mattered most. This isn’t just the ivory tower historian being pedantic, either, for the Left overplaying its role in the downfall of Joh can lead to dangerous complacency by a contemporary movement no-where near as organized and coherent as that which challenged the Bjelke-Petersen regime.

The other issue I want to draw out here is around the slogan ‘here we Joh again’. To make another obvious point, the current Liberal regime is remarkably different to that which ruled Queensland in the past. Queensland itself has changed, for one. There’s no more gerrymander, which effectively disenfranchised Brisbane voters, and the nature of this government is tied irrevocably to international trends. While the Bjelke-Petersen government led nearly two decades of continuous economic growth, through its State-led development model, Newman faces the realities of the Global Financial Crisis and austerity.

Now, the left are a very historically minded lot. We like to draw connections between the struggles of the past and how they seed the present. As Walter Benjamin had it in his masterful Theses on the Philosophy of History, it is the task of the left, as the angel of history, to “to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed” by the onward march of bourgeois history. But what Benjamin meant by this was not mere historical archaeology – piecing together and recreating the past in the present – but bringing those corpses of the revolutionary past into dialogue with the present – “now-time” as he puts it.

There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. But we need to, like Benjamin, reanimate its corpse in the context of the present. We need a discussion and a dialogue on what similarities are there between the Joh period and now, what tactics worked and what didn’t. A pure veneration of the left’s (invented) victory of Bjelke-Petersen doesn’t help at all with this. Equally, we should understand, as activists like Humphrey McQueen did (State of Mind article) during Joh’s regime, that international events are just as important as the State’s parochial frame of mind. What would the anti-Joh movement have looked like in the age of Austerity? What can we learn from the multiplicity of struggles against this overseas? These are important questions we need to ask, or risk the ‘vampiric’ presence of the past sapping the creative potentiality of our movements.


[1] Kostis Kornetis “No More Heroes? Rejection and Reverberation of the Past in the 2008 Events in Greece,” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 28 (2010): 177.

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6 thoughts on “You’ve got to be Jo(h)king: History, the Left and Queensland

  1. I agree that this is a not a re-run of the past and that “the movement didn’t beat Joh”. However, I’m not sure that the contemporary movement (or movements) are “no-where near as organised and coherent as that which challenged the Bjelke-Petersen regime”. For it is not just the “corpses of the revolutonary past” that are brought into dialogue with the present – but also the revolutionary past that continues to live, in our acheivements and continuing struggles.

  2. It is true that history does not repeat itself but it also true that there is something in the Zeitgeist of Queensland, embedded in its political culture, that produces reactionary political regimes, led by what Veblin called ‘crackpot realists’. Joh was one such person – Newman is another. True the Bjelkemander made it hard to dislodge conservative rule without a tsunami of disgust, but it is also true that in most of the elections of the 1970’s and 80’s, the anti-Labor forces actually did win a majority of the votes, that the Labor Party was next to hopeless in opposition as it is now, and that the more reactionary and strange the Bjelke-Petersen regime became, the more popular its traction also became with Queensland voters, with the Courier Mail (then as now) deeply involved in the process of king-making until the eleventh hour. Joh’s nuttiness doubled the National Party vote in Queensland. The weighted country electorates simply allowed the Nationals to lord it over the Liberals in power – well, now they are simply one, aren’t they? The only place of opposition at the time was in the streets, where students, unionists, Aborigines, environmentalists and others fought a range of campaigns against the brutal face of a politicised police force, some of which they did actually win or at least fought the Government to an exhausted draw, until the excessive ( and quietly nurtured) police corruption allowed the legal forces to step in, with the help of Bill Gunn, to bring the whole stinking edifice down.

  3. Agree with both comments. I actually have come to disagree a bit with what my article says since writing it a few weeks ago. There does appear to be something specifically ‘Queensland’ about the situation, which as you say Ray produces ‘crackpot realists’ aplenty. I merely think that we need to look beyond generalities in our use of the past in protest movements. Yes, there are similarities between Joh and Newman. But the context is very different, and if we don’t look anew at this situation in all of its global particulars we risk (to allude to a previous post on this blog) a farcical repetition of past Left movements.

  4. The video ‘If U Dont Fight U Lose’ may help readers compare then and now.

    btw it is misguided to think of this period as the Joh era as implied by the title [Jo(h)king]- from our (activist) point-of-view, it was the street march era.

    one other thing, we are going through a period where people (historians, filmakers, retired activists, police) are romanticising these past struggles using special branch & asio files – and police are taking the opportunity to whitewash their participation and others are attempting to exaggerate their involvement … any political activist who has stuck their neck out and suffered the consequence knows how hard it was to fight Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies and pals.

    ian curr

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